Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Great Horse 5 – Research

Of course I had to do some research. All historical novels require a good amount of research if they are to feel authentic, and my knowledge of Alexander the Great when I started this book was sketchy to say the least. The things I knew about him could be counted on a horse’s hooves:

1. He rode a large black stallion called Bucephalas, a horse nobody else could handle except for one groom.
2. He defeated the Persians and built an empire stretching from Macedonia to India.
3. He had a best friend called Hephaestion and married an Afghan princess called Roxanne.
3. He died in Babylon, aged 33, leaving no heir.

The bits between were a hazy mixture of battles, plots and politics. The historical characters were simply exotic names to me or as yet unknown. And I’d never travelled to any of the countries Alexander conquered. So I needed to research the story on two levels: historical and geographical.

Fortunately, there is a mass of historical information available about Alexander the Great, so I had my pick of the history books. Purists would probably recommend going back to the “primary sources” (i.e. the first written accounts), but I decided that in this case a random selection of secondary sources would provide an accurate enough picture of Alexander for my purposes. The Persian side of things required a bit more imagination on my part because history is obviously written by the victors – dead men cannot talk (or write!) Alexander even took an official historian along with his army, no doubt guiding the man’s pen through the more questionable aspects of his campaigns in the way any politician would do today. But if you read the official accounts closely enough, you can sometimes peer through the gaps to where a veil has been pulled across the truth, and it is these areas of history that provide the most fertile material for a writer's imagination.
I decided that Bucephalas should tell Alexander’s story as accurately as possible, even the less flattering parts, which meant filling in some of these gaps myself.
In the prologue Bucephalas makes this quite clear:
People may tell you some of this story isn’t true. But Alexander’s royal historian was paid to write lies, and he never ventured down to the horse lines anyway, so what could he know? Climb on my back, if you dare, and let ME carry you into the battles that changed the world.

For the geography, I needed a book with lots of photos because I didn’t intend to travel in Alexander’s footsteps to take my own. If you’ve read my first post in this series on my inspiration for the book, you’ll see I had a good excuse – war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But travelling in those parts today would not take me back 2300 years, so much of the atmosphere would be different. The ancient city of Babylon where Alexander died lies in ruins today, and the Persian Gulf is a different shape. More practically, I did not have time to travel if I was to meet the delivery date for this book and my advance would not have funded such a journey… though it’s one of my wilder dreams to ride a horse in Bucephalas’ hoof prints when circumstances allow! So, even though it doesn’t sound very glamorous, for this story I became an armchair traveller.

These are the books I chose:
Alexander of Macedonby Peter Green (my bible, now covered with notes scribbled in the margin!)
Alexander the Greatby Robin Lane Fox (who advised on the film version)
The Greek Alexander Romance(written in Alexander’s time)
In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great– Michael Wood (for the geography)

This last book proved especially useful because it accompanied a TV series of the same name, which I was also able to watch. And in addition to these main texts, I read up on specialist subjects such as warfare in the ancient world, battle tactics, Greek myths, the Iliad (Alexander’s favourite book, which he carried with him on his campaigns as bedtime reading), and – of course – horses.

Here’s a selection:


So how did I go about organizing all this material? Normally when I’m researching a book, I’ll do most of it before I start the writing because it's surprising how many background details you need to know to get the atmosphere right even if you include very few of them in your book. You can always tell if a writer has done their research, because page one has the smell and taste, sound and feel of the period, as well as the visual scene. I don’t know if I succeeded, but my first scene alone required knowledge of: the location of Alexander’s home (Pella, Macedonia), its climate (dusty riding ground), method of horse transport (ship), horse harness (spiked bit, cloth), minor historical characters (Alexander’s father King Philip, his mother, the horsemaster, his young friends), weaponry (javelins), and some background about the war with Persia, as well as all the more obvious stuff about Bucephalas and horses in general.

The second aim of researching a historical novel is for plot.
Ah ha! I hear you say, so writing historical novels is easy… the plot is all worked out for you, right? Well, sort of.
History is like life. It does not usually make a neat and satisfying plot. Also, sticking too closely to the known events can make it boring because your reader will already know the outcome. The best way to dramatise history is to take the known facts and expand on these, filling in the gaps with your own plot twists and characters. But with Alexander and his carefully chronicled life story, it was more a case of deciding what to leave out! I left out quite a lot – anything the horse would not know about, such as Alexander’s sexual life, went straight into the bin – but even so I ended up with a first draft of 200,000 words, which I had to cut down to 150,000 words following screams of horror from my publisher. (Muse: and even that proved too long for a children’s list… more about this later) To simplify things a bit, I decided Bucephalas’ story would take a linear form – starting with Alexander taming the horse and working through to when Alexander died in Babylon – which meant the details could wait until I needed them. All I really needed at the start of the book was a brief outline of the main events, including anything about Bucephalas and all Alexander’s major battles. I listed these events as chapters, which I later decided to call “Hoofprints” to reflect the horse’s viewpoint, and wrote them in the margins of my reference book to remind me which bits I had to read later on.

Note: At this point I pretty much assumed Alexander's story would ALL be battles, and it worried me that Bucephalas (not a young horse to start with) would be getting older all the time, ending up in India an ancient nag of 30 plus, in which case how did he cope with the long journey and all the fighting? But in the end I discovered there were surprisingly few big battles, and Alexander spent the months and years between them sorting out all the other details of building an empire, as well as besieging a few cities and leading minor skirmishes mounted on other horses. So Bucephalas had time to rest, which gave me plenty of scope to add fictional characters and glimpses into the other side of the story – that of the Persian hostages and the plots against Alexander by his own men disillusioned by years of war.

I then drew a rough map, later tidied and beautified by professional artist Brian Sanders for the book itself - this is an early sketch by him, which became a full-colour map in the UK paperback:


(Muse tip: If you’re writing a fantasy book or historical novel set in an unfamiliar location, ALWAYS DRAW THE MAP FIRST. It will save you a lot of rewriting later on!)

Finally, I felt ready to plunge into my first bit of uncharted territory… what happened after Alexander tricked his father into buying Bucephalas? And at this stage I needed to know a bit more about the other characters in the story, both human and horse. There were going to be a lot of them, I knew that! But how many should I include, and who would be the main ones in Bucephalas’ story?

Find out in my next post: Characters

Not read the book yet? I am the Great Horseby Katherine Roberts

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